The possibility of astronaut farmers

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By Jonathan Martin

Exactly 50 years ago, while commander Neil Armstrong uttered the famous words, “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind,” Mike Collins, the mission’s command module pilot, sipped on a floating bag of coffee.

The coffee, along with the astronauts’ other food and drinks, had travelled with the team around 384,400 km (238,855 miles) from Earth to the moon’s orbit.

It costs around C$26,000 to fly one kilogram into orbit, so that cup of coffee cost around C$737.

That’s a pricey cup of joe.

The cost of moving food into space is so high that most of the items astronauts eat during their residencies on the International Space Station (ISS) are thermo-stabilized, powdered or freeze-dried for extended storage. Fresh produce comes at a premium.

Researchers around the world are trying to change that, however.

The University of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility and its Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture (SALSA) collaborate with the European Space Agency’s Micro-ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program, NASA and the University of Florida.

SALSA’s researchers grow plants in specialized chambers built to simulate conditions that astronaut-farmers might encounter in space.

Together, the international astro-agronomists hope to develop systems which will allow astronauts on the ISS to grow their food. Plant life would also help recycle the space station’s atmosphere and provide psychological benefits.

Researchers are getting closer. In 2015, scientists aboard the ISS grew — and ate — red-coloured romaine lettuce as part of NASA’s Veg-01 experiment.

Eventually, the researchers hope farmers will be able to work the land on other planets.

Some of the scientists’ studies could have practical applications here on earth, too.

SALSA’s spin-off research lead to breakthroughs in air-quality remediation for animal-holding facilities, such as pig barns and chicken coops, including a system that may consume ammonia faster than chickens can produce it.

There’s no word yet on chicken-sized spacesuits, though.

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